Noynoy Gets Cold Feet on Family Planning?

The Philippine Catholic Church appears to have cowed President Benigno S. Aquino III with its implacable opposition to a family planning bill which has been languishing in the Congress for 13 years, critics say.

Although Aquino appeared to support the legislation as a senator prior to being elected president last year, Malacañang Palace announced recently that its list of priority bills to be pushed through the Congress does not include the family planning bill. Instead, the government said its own Responsible Parenthood Bill, as it is known, will focus on poverty reduction rather than population control. Health Secretary Enrique Ona has been put in charge of drafting the legislation.

A Malacañang delegation has met three times with officials from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to discuss Aquino’s stance on the family planning bill, with Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman telling local reporters that the cabinet doesn’t point to the upward population trend as the reason for the numbers of Filipinos living in poverty.

Supporters are now pressuring Aquino to give them a definite answer on the future of the bill. They are also demanding that Aquino hold dialogues with them as he has with the Catholic Church. Benjamin D. de Leon, president of the Forum for Family Planning and Development, said he didn’t believe Aquino had backed away from his support for the reproductive health bill and that Aquino wants the legislative process to take its course. But, he said, Aquino should meet with advocates of family planning as well as the church. Former Department of Health Secretary Alberto Romualdez agreed, saying in a telephone interview that he thought Aquino was still committed to the family planning legislation.

The church has insisted that the country’s population is not related to poverty, a stance that is contradicted by almost all known research. In particular, it flies in the face of statistics supplied by the Philippine National Statistical Coordination Board, and reprinted in from the Filipino website Newsbreak by Asia Sentinel last week, showing that although poverty incidence among families (the ratio of poor families against total number of families) dipped slightly to 20.9 percent in 2009 from 21.1 percent in 2006, the number of poor families rose by 85,000 to 3.86 million from 2006.

The numbers are depressing. The Philippines, with a population estimated by the CIA Factbook in July 2010 at 99.9 million has one of the highest population growth rates in Asia, at 3.23 babies per female. At a time when most of the countries of East Asia are struggling with some of the lowest population growth rates in the world – and in fact are below replacement levels – the Philippine rate translates to 28.55 live births per 100,000 population against only 5.06 deaths. Some 35.2 percent of the population is under the age of 14.

The Reproductive Health Bill, as it is titled, was recently approved by the House Committee on Appropriations. It now faces a plenary hearing.

It is anathema to the church because it mandates the government to "promote, without bias, all effective natural and modern methods of family planning that are medically safe and legal." It also allows for the treatment of complications arising from abortions. Abortion is illegal in the Philippines and women who undergo the procedure are liable to a six-year prison term. Nonetheless, according to a 2007 Reuters story, nearly 80,000 women are treated in hospitals every year for complications from induced abortions, some performed by masseuses who simply squeeze the fetus to death I the womb. At least 800 women are estimated to die every year from complications.

According to the Reuters story more than half the women who have aborted babies were not using any family planning and of those that were, 75 percent of them were using either the rhythm method or withdrawal, which are favored by the Catholic Church.

A letter seemingly from a Manila parish raised a storm yesterday, in which the parish said it would deny Holy Communion to parishioners unless they attended confession and renounced the family planning law. The Parish of Snctuario de San Jose, however, issued a formal statement denying it had sent out the letter. A spokesman for the Council of Bishops of the Philippines said it had never heard of the letter and had not given permission for its circulation.

However, Benjamin de Leon told Asia Sentinel the letter had been passed to former Health Secretary Romualdez by Lito Sandejas, a member of the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei and a classmate of Ramualdez at Ateneo University. "Where Mr Sandejas got the paper, I have no info," de Leon said. But would Opus Dei lie?" Rmualdez told Asia Sentinel, however, that he wasn't sure the letter had actually come from Sandejas although it came from his email address, which could have been hacked, he said.

De Leon called the letter "pure and simple bigotry. It is absurd, unreasonable and cruel."

Corazon Raymundo, executive director of the Institute of Maternal and Child Health issued a statement saying: "This is like we are still in the dark ages; these men in robes are again insulting the intellect of the Filipinos. But, we still have blind followers who surrender their reason and rights to their claims as 'caretakers' of our morality. I thought religious leaders care genuinely for their flocks."

The Philippine Star editorialized earlier this week that Aquino’s endorsements of the family planning bill "was another factor that surely contributed to his landslide win; surveys by different pollsters have consistently shown overwhelming public support for contraception and other family planning programs. The support is not just for an information campaign, but for an active program to curb the growth of a population that the resources of this developing country cannot support.

"It is therefore dismaying to see the President waffling on this matter when, unlike his predecessor, he doesn’t even have popularity problems to worry about. It is also dismaying that he is getting cold feet on the RH bill when the leader of the world’s one billion Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI, has given a grudging green light to the use of condoms, although only to promote safe sex with prostitutes."